The Greatest Graveyard of Empires
Pax Pamir is one of those historical games that doesn’t demand you perfectly understand its context before you play. The broad strokes will do. Here’s Afghanistan, its dynasty peeling at the edges. There’s Britain, looking to unite local warlords into a buffer state against its rivals. Speaking of which, here comes Russia: expanding rapidly, voraciously hungry, hoping to consolidate their frontier. Three sides, three agendas, one tract of land standing at their intersection.
The twist is that none of those competing agendas are your own. Instead, you’re a tribal chieftain, the local hotshot these empires must rely upon to achieve their aims. Scouting, navigation of local customs and courtly procedure, information and advice — the lay of the land, both literally and figuratively. But you have aspirations of your own. Perhaps even aspirations that might be realized by aiding the right empire at the right moment.
The Great Game, in other words, except played by its middlemen rather than its kings and queens. And although I’ve written about Pax Pamir three times before, Cole Wehrle’s official second edition is different enough that it warrants an entirely new treatment.
Russia won the first war.
It was a near thing, as struggles tend to be in Pax Pamir. Frontier armies, a few trade roads overseen by men with rifles. But the British and Afghans couldn’t keep pace, and when the day of gunpowder and cannon-shot rolled around, it was the Russians who proclaimed themselves king of the hill.
Two out of five chieftains had supported them, myself and a rival who will go unnamed except to say his name rhymed with Schmeff. As a coalition we won the day. As rivals — because in Pax Pamir even your allies are rivals, and don’t you forget it — our success was so closely interlinked that the Russians elevated us to the same degree. Disappointing, but still better than the state of affairs for the other three chieftains. A shared elevation is still better than absolute failure, after all.
The war ended. The empires went home. Pax Pamir kept going.
Winning a war in Pax Pamir is a unique process, recognizable to veterans of the Pax Series but entirely opaque to those who have yet to be initiated. The basics go like this. There’s a market of cards to buy from, filled with troops and spies and economic incentives and the occasional event to either bury or use to your advantage. By adding these cards to your court, you gain new — well, everything. Armies for fighting. Roads for traveling. Spies for extorting money. Tribes for exerting political control over a region. Even the very actions you’ll be using to move those armies or tax your opponents. They’re all in the cards, so to speak, waiting for you to snap them up and put them to good use.
Four times per game, a special card appears in the market. This is a dominance card, purchasable like any other. But instead of adding new stuff to your court, buying it launches a contest between the three empires. If one side is strong enough — and we’re only counting armies and roads here — then that side wins.
Remember, though, that you aren’t directly aligned with any one side. Sometimes only one chieftain will be propping up a lonely contending empire. Other times everyone will be ostensibly working together. Which is why an empire’s victory means it’s time to check to see who’s considered the most loyal. There are a few avenues here: assassinating an empire’s enemies, employing an empire’s patriots, or sending gifts to whomever passes as a local governor. Regardless of how you proceed, the outcome is the same: the most loyal servant receives a bunch of points, second-most receives fewer, and third-most gets a pity point.
That’s how it came to pass that two of us had supported Russia but were rewarded with the same amount of points, because neither of us had endeared ourselves more than the other. Not that we hadn’t put some muscle into catching our overlord’s eye. Sure, we chieftains weren’t allowed to assault each other directly. But economically? Under the table? Certainly. We taxed each other mercilessly. We assassinated each other’s spies and court cards. We abandoned our ally’s fragile positions to shore up our own.
In the end, it still wasn’t enough to push either of us to the head of the class.
As I mentioned earlier, Pax Pamir continued even though the war was over. Eventually new armies trickled into the region. New road stations were manned. New skirmishes erupted across the countryside. This time, the Afghan Empire was utterly dominant. There was simply no contest. For every block added by the British or Russians, the Afghans responded with two. For every marched formation, a massacre stopped them dead in their tracks. Unmarked graves choked the mountain passes.
Here was the problem: in simulation of a military quagmire, the dominance card simply wouldn’t appear in the market. The chieftains loyal to Afghanistan — there were two — grew more agitated with each turn, desperate to put an end to the conflict before one of their enemies gained a foothold. Little did they know, I didn’t even plan to try. Instead of guiding additional Russian troops into the country, I turned coat, leaping from the deck of the Knyaz Potemkin to the We’re Landlocked And Don’t Have A Navy. My Russian patriots and gifts were discarded in favor of the wintergreen scent of a fresh Afghan uniform. I capitalized on this as swiftly as possible, assassinating enemies of our resurgent dynasty and making new friends in low places.
Soon two dominance cards appeared in the market at nearly the same time, forcing the conflict to conclude. My chieftain wasn’t the most loyal to Afghanistan, but he was esteemed enough to rate a mention. Just like that, I became the most powerful man in the country.
Everyone went home again, leaving nothing but the chieftains, their political leverage, and their courts. Still, the game continued.
Three thoughts occur to me at this point.
First, the beauty of Wehrle’s system lies in the way it unfurls like a carpet, revealing unexpected ornamentation where previously all you saw was its rolled-up silhouette. At the outset there are only two options: buy a card from the market or play a card from your hand. Both conceal surprising depth. Buying something, for instance, invests its cost into the market itself, one per preceding card, which are then claimed along with those cards. In this way even undesirable options become windfalls, especially since spending money is rare in Pax Pamir’s closed economy.
The same goes for playing a card. At times this is as simple as slapping something down and reaping its benefits, ranging from new imperial units to personal property like spies or the allegiance of local tribes. Other times you’ll have to consider a bribe, paying off a region’s current owner in order to deploy anything that corresponds to that location. In every case, it pays to understand how a card will reshape the political landscape. Armies are a threat, but extremely local without roads to travel by. Tribes lend control but are vulnerable. Spies take enemy assets hostage and may assassinate them, but are largely disposable.
Best of all, these details are streamlined while still allowing for unexpected reveals and reversals of fortune. Taxation can draw coins from the market or totally cripple a rival. Battles can be overt, fought on the map and eliminating units entirely, or covert, shots in the dark exchanged between spies. A single unit can upend the balance of power in a crucial region. Everything has a purpose, but that purpose is magnified when deployed at the right moment.
Second, most of my early concerns with this edition’s prototype were issues of tempo. At certain junctures the game would grind to a halt, whether because your hand was full or thanks to a dominance check emptying the map and everybody’s court. I’m happy to say that these concerns have been resolved. This could be considered a testament to the iterative nature of game design, that even miniature tweaks can result in a fresh experience. More likely it speaks to the surety of Wehrle’s keen talent for uncovering the essence behind a game’s systems and setting. Your hand is no longer strictly locked, instead letting you buy as many cards as you like provided you discard down to your limit at the end of the turn. Courts are less static, constantly forming and reforming. Immediate dominance checks occur whenever two such cards appear in the deck, prohibiting gridlock and injecting some terrific uncertainty into the proceedings. And post-battle cleanup sends only imperial units home, leaving everyone’s personal property firmly in place. These are all vast improvements, propelling Pax Pamir from one beat to the next with hardly any drag or delay.
And both of these details are still less important than the third point.
In essence, the tale told by Pax Pamir’s second edition is different from the one told by its predecessor. The original game was about enacting surprise victories, about counting up your strength in one of four modes — military, political, economic, or espionage — and hopefully switching to your strongest sphere of influence at the exact moment of a dominance check. It was as obtuse as it was cerebral, demanding that everybody be aware of a dozen competing details at the same time. Delays were expected and even encouraged whenever somebody seemed within reach of victory.
By contrast, the second edition is about opportunism of another stripe. Rather than swapping out the tone of the conflict, here you’re stepping into an entirely different role whenever it suits your needs. Those four modes are still crucial, providing free actions on corresponding cards — a tremendous boon when you’re normally only permitted two moves per turn. But rather than determining the winner outright, here the winner is determined over the course of multiple struggles. It was always possible to switch sides, but in the original game it was functionally suicidal. Now you’re as constant as a windstorm, propping up whichever regime will award you a few points right now.
Put another way, Pax Pamir’s first edition was about springing an ambush. The second edition is about forging a dynasty one convenient alliance, one war, one rivalry at a time.
In some ways this may prove disappointing to fans of the original. Earning points on a score track is less idiosyncratic than the original game’s bombshell victories, and some part of me misses recalculating everybody’s strength every few minutes. But as much as it surprises me to say this, the result is a formidable successor to the original, and possibly even a superior one. The Barakzai Dynasty to the original game’s Durrani, perhaps. Time will tell, but for now I’m enamored with this edition’s ability to both tell its story and tell it clearly.
Back to the ongoing conflict. After the Afghan Empire won, our season of peace was soon interrupted by another war. My chieftain dabbled in the service of the British for a while, but it soon became apparent that nobody was going to reign supreme.
This is Pax Pamir’s final twist. Sometimes its three empires fail. When that happens, loyalty counts for less than a splintered knife. Instead, it’s all about what you own. Your spies, your tribes. The tangible things that are left behind when the distant sovereigns lose interest in some far-off land where the customs are foreign and the names unpronounceable. In this case, my vacillations had left me vulnerable. When the final dominance card was drawn, no empire won. Instead, it was my principal rival who had secured the necessary political capital to forge the new Afghan Dynasty. The Dynasty of Schmeff.
Pax Pamir was my favorite game of 2015. Little did I know Pax Pamir would also be a contender for my favorite game of 2019. Its two editions diverge enough that with some squinting they could pass for distinct titles. But the second edition manages the unexpected, evoking the lives and aspirations of those left behind when the troops withdraw and the public interest wanes, when the newspapers move onto the next big thing, when at last the Great Game of Empires settles and gives voice to those in between. It’s devious, clever, and does its heritage proud. Once again, Pax Pamir rewards fighting a land war in Asia.
A complimentary copy was provided.